Tar Sands Industry Eyes Great Lakes for Cheap Shipping
As tar sands extraction continues and proposals for expanded pipelines from Canada into the U.S. form a backdrop, the Great Lakes themselves could become the next frontier for moving crude oil to a vast Midwest refinery network.
The region faces a critical choice about whether the Great Lakes should become a thoroughfare for tar sands crude shipping, a new report from Alliance for the Great Lakes warns. The report, Oil and Water: Tar Sands Crude Shipping Meets Great Lakes?, finds that neither the Great Lakes shipping fleet nor its ports were designed to ship tar sands crude over the Great Lakes, and cites serious gaps in the region’s oil-spill prevention and response policies.
Already, plans are in the works to dramatically increase the flow of tar sands crude to the Midwest as early as next year; permitting is sought for a $25 million loading dock on Lake Superior to ship the crude in 2015, and a tar sands shipping route has been mapped across the waters of the Great Lakes.
“We're at a crossroads now, with companies starting to seek permits for new oil terminals,” says Lyman Welch, director of the Alliance’s Water Quality Program and the report’s lead author. “Before our region starts sinking money into shipping terminals for the Great Lakes, our task should be to ask ‘if’ rather than ‘when.’”
Western Michigan residents learned firsthand the risk of mixing tar sands oil with water in 2010 after a cataclysmic pipeline spill in the Kalamazoo River. Three years and $1 billion-plus worth of cleanup later, more than 20 percent of the oil spill remains at the bottom of the river: a heavy, viscous muck synonymous with this form of crude oil.
The report questions the rush to capitalize on the growing flow of tar sands oil, destined for 19 U.S. and Canadian refineries on or near the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway. Enbridge, responsible for the Kalamazoo spill and owner of pipelines to several of these refineries, plans next year to expand its pipeline to Superior, WI, to accommodate another 120,000 barrels per day, up from 450,000. As companies jockey to take advantage of the demand for this unique and significantly cheaper crude, pressures are also mounting to find economical ways to move it out—and Great Lakes vessel shipping is emerging as a key contender.
“Great Lakers have a track record of making smart choices as a region when the lakes are at risk,” says Welch. “We need to pause for breath and decide which fork in the road leads to a healthy Great Lakes.”
The report’s authors probe deeply into whether regulators tasked with overseeing the health of the world’s largest body of surface freshwater are prepared to safeguard the Great Lakes from a potential tar sands crude spill and to direct a cleanup should disaster strike. They cite the following shortcomings:
- A recent U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security report on spill-response protocols for submerged oil found current methods for locating and recovering submerged oil inadequate.
- A “Worst-Case Discharge” scenario developed by the Coast Guard involves a Great Lakes vessel carrying a type of oil that is much different, and less damaging to the environment, than tar sands crude.
- Limited resources are available to learn about the risk of oil spills by vessels and oil-spill management in the region; most information about spills is outdated or discontinued.
“The current regulatory net has far too many holes,” the report says. “The regulatory and response framework for petroleum shipping on the Great Lakes is not fully up to the task of protecting the lakes from spills today, and is certainly not an adequate starting point from which to consider the viability of tar sands crude shipment by vessel.”
Noting the Great Lakes provide more than 40 million people with drinking water, the report stresses the importance of strengthening efforts now to prevent a potential Great Lakes oil spill.
Among its recommendations are that the U.S. improve coordination among federal agencies involved in large-scale spill prevention and response, with a special emphasis on tar sands crude and other “submerged” oil spills. The report also calls on Congress to increase funding for prevention, preparedness and response programs, and on Great Lakes states to expand and enhance state laws to prevent and better protect their shorelines from oil-shipping spills.
For their part, the report says tar sands crude shippers should improve safety and maintain spill-prevention and response equipment.
“The movement of oil across water increases the risks of oil in water, a clash in which the environment is the loser,” the report states. “We must preface our choice of whether to ship tar sands crude by vessel with proactively improving our oil-spill prevention and response policies. The health of the Great Lakes is at risk unless we take swift action."
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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The Navajo Nation covers the corners of three different states. Google Maps
Growing Contribution<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzM3NDY5Ny9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjM4MTgyM30.IuQTKQs1stvYYKD6vaVTrqAyoBsUG0BhDvlhxsyKwPA/img.png?width=980" id="02a05" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2841f82b1785df5d5ed7bf64d3bb882b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
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